In late March 2020, rumours started circulating that the United States was looking for candidate groups to proscribe as part of their efforts against the radical right. In early April, the US finally designated the Russian Imperial Movement, a white supremacy group based in Russia, and its leadership as Specially Designated Global Terrorists (SDGT). But how helpful will this move be to combat the radical right domestically? Has proscription been an effective tool internationally?
Russian Imperial Movement: why not the Atomwaffen Division?
The Russian Imperial Movement (RIM) is a nationalist pro-monarchy, pro-Christianity (Russian Orthodox Church) movement, which believes that the West, Jews and Ukrainians are set on diminishing Russian influence throughout the world. RIM has engaged in multiple anti-Semitic and anti-LGBT tropes and has promoted narratives that are common to the global radical right, including the clash of civilisations and a Russian form of populist nationalism whereby the collapse of Russia will be due to a set of corrupt elites. The group has also cultivated relationships with prominent neo-Nazi groups across the world, including a convicted Swedish neo-Nazi bombers and one of the key organisers of the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville.
While the designation of RIM has been a welcome step in the fight against the radical right globally, some experts have noted that the US has not designated RIM as a Foreign Terrorist Organisation (FTO). The FTO designation would go beyond the sanctions regime provided by the SDGT to trigger automatic criminal liability for anyone who provides material support for the group. The combination of SDGT and FTO is therefore the most efficient mechanism to assist in counter-terrorism investigations, at least as it relates to terrorist groups based outside the United States.
Separate from this, there’s a more fundamental and legitimate question afoot as to whether RIM is the group that poses the biggest threat to the US and therefore whether there are other prime candidates for designation. For a point of comparison, the proscription of National Action in the UK in December 2016 followed a period of 18-24 months of increased activity and provocation, according to anti-racist group Hope Not Hate. The equivalent of National Action in the US, both in scope and relevance, would probably be the Atomwaffen Division (AWD), as its members have been responsible for several murders over the past few years. Likewise, there have been several arrests taking place in recent months, including five members who were planning swatting attacks against journalists earlier this year.
Yet precisely because AWD seems to have such a strong domestic presence it did not constitute a suitable candidate for designation under current laws, as it could trigger First Amendment issues, which aims at the crux of the US problem in tackling radical right terrorism, namely that currently there is no legislation for designating a domestic extremist group as a terrorist organisation. The US is therefore severely lacking in domestic terrorism legislation mechanisms that can be applied to fight this threat federally. Moreover, the practical consequences of not having this legislation in place are that there are fewer instruments to charge potential terrorist conspirators, as argued by recently released joint report by the George Washington Program on Extremism and the Anti-Defamation League, with a displacement effect happening whereby authorities seeking convictions for terrorism on tangential charges, like firearms possession. The authors of the GWPOE and ADL report therefore attest that a new domestic statute that expands on federal powers to deal with domestic extremism would be more effective in dealing with groups, such as AWD.
Is proscription an effective tool internationally?
Looking at international proscription lists, Islamist extremist groups far outnumber those on the radical right. The UN has not banned any white supremacy group —proscription has so far been at the discretion of individual states.
Since the banning of National Action in the UK in 2016, other countries have followed suit, with Germany ramping up the proscription groups like Combat 18 and Citizens of the Reich, allowing security forces to carry out raids and arrests. Last year, Canada banned Combat 18 and Blood and Honour, which have affiliates in other countries like the UK and Germany.
However, how are we able to judge whether proscription has been an effective tool? By the looks of it, in countries like the United Kingdom and Germany, the banning of groups has made it easier to carry out raids and seek convictions. However, there are limitations as to how far proscription goes, as it does not apply retroactively. Groups are often swift to disband if they fear that they will be proscribed by adopting different names, as we saw in the UK with the splinters of Al Muhajiroun first and then with National Action, although the government has so far kept apace of this by proscribing all subsequent aliases of these original groups.
Finally, we should not forget that proscription is likely to be ineffective in dealing with individual actors, who might be planning terrorist attacks but are not formally affiliated with any of the banned groups. Even for those who might be loosely linked to said groups, it is unclear whether the legal definition of membership would apply, as it seems to be modelled after jihadi groups where members do not tend to belong to two groups at the same time.
Legislators are lagging when it comes to blocking the current surge of radical right terrorism, which is still not seen on par with Islamist terrorism. Having said this, governments across the world have lately taken decisive action to correct this imbalance. However, while efforts such as proscription are laudable and send a strong message that governments are committed to this fight, we must understand the nature of radical right groups and violence better if we are to repurpose existing mechanisms, or even develop new tools that are more suitable for dealing with this threat. A copy-and-paste approach from Jihadi terrorism will simply no do.
Ms Cristina Ariza is a Policy and Practitioner Fellow at CARR and Research Analyst at the Institute for Global Change. See her profile here.
© Cristina Ariza. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).